For Youths, a Grim Tour on Magazine Crews

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

If you’ve ever had a sketchy teenager show up on your doorstep selling magazines, then you might have wondered about the details of the business. For Youths, a Grim Tour on Magazine Crews:

Up at 7 a.m., typical crews start the day with a sales meeting where they rehearse their pitches. “We’re selling magazines to earn points in a contest to win a trip abroad” is the standard and sometimes fictitious spiel. Around 9 a.m., the crews pile into vans to be dropped off at the day’s territory. They switch neighborhoods every several hours and often work as late as 10 p.m.

“You work hard during the day, but you also party pretty hard at night,” said Stephanie Blake, 23, who wrote an e-mail message in November to Earlene Williams at Parent Watch because she said she wanted to tell the positive side of the work.

While she and others used methamphetamine, Ms. Blake said it was mostly marijuana, alcohol and sex that filled the nights.
For two years starting in February 2004, Mr. Simpson, a stocky former high school lacrosse player from Newburgh, N.Y., worked on several crews as an “enforcer.” His job, he said, was to beat crew members upon a manager’s request.

If sellers missed quota regularly or complained about the job, Mr. Simpson, 23, said he hit them while in their room or when they were alone in the van. On more than 30 occasions, he estimated, he and several other enforcers drew blood. In three instances, ambulances were called, he said. Dealing with the police was not a problem.

“You have one kid saying he was jumped and 20 others plus two managers saying he stole something or broke into a room and assaulted a girl,” Mr. Simpson said. “Who do you think the cops are going to believe?”

Daivet McClinton, 23, an enforcer who worked with Mr. Simpson, said talking in front of others about wanting to quit invited the worst beatings.

Why Smart Cops Do Dumb Things

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

Security expert Bruce Schneier explains Why Smart Cops Do Dumb Things:

Since 9/11, we’ve spent hundreds of billions of dollars defending ourselves from terrorist attacks. Stories about the ineffectiveness of many of these security measures are common, but less so are discussions of why they are so ineffective. In short: Much of our country’s counterterrorism security spending is not designed to protect us from the terrorists, but instead to protect our public officials from criticism when another attack occurs.
If someone left a backpack full of explosives in a crowded movie theater, or detonated a truck bomb in the middle of a tunnel, no one would demand to know why the police hadn’t noticed it beforehand. But if a weird device with blinking lights and wires turned out to be a bomb — what every movie bomb looks like — there would be inquiries and demands for resignations. It took the police two weeks to notice the Mooninite blinkies, but once they did, they overreacted because their jobs were at stake.

This is Cover Your Ass security, and unfortunately it’s very common.

Airplane security seems to forever be looking backward. Pre-9/11, it was bombs, guns and knives. Then it was small blades and box cutters. Richard Reid tried to blow up a plane, and suddenly we all have to take off our shoes. And after last summer’s liquid plot, we’re stuck with a series of nonsensical bans on liquids and gels.

Once you think about this in terms of CYA, it starts to make sense. The Transportation Security Administration wants to be sure that if there’s another airplane terrorist attack, it’s not held responsible for letting it slip through. One year ago, no one could blame the TSA for not detecting liquids. But since everything seems obvious in hindsight, it’s basic job preservation to defend against what the terrorists tried last time.

300 Brings History to Bloody Life

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

Wired News interviews 300 director Zack Snyder on his new movie, in 300 Brings History to Bloody Life, and Snyder demonstrates some self-promotional talent:

Wired News: This is one crazy-looking movie.

Zack Snyder: No one should ever take drugs, ever. I want to go on the record on that. But if someone was to slip you a mickey, I would immediately get into a taxi and go to an Imax screening of 300.
WN: In the film, a tiny bunch of European freedom fighters hold off a huge army of Iranian slaves. Everyone is sure to be translating this into contemporary politics.

Snyder: Someone asked me, “Is George Bush Leonidas or Xerxes?” I said, “That’s an awesome question.” The fact they asked tells me that this movie can mean one thing to one person and something totally different to another.

Wired News also has an eerie-but-beautiful gallery of images from the film.

Spear-wielding chimps snack on skewered bushbabies

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

Spear-wielding chimps snack on skewered bushbabies:

Many chimpanzees trim twigs to use for ant-dipping and termite-fishing. But a population of savannah chimps (Pan troglodytes verus) living in the Fongoli area of south-east Senegal have been seen making spears from strong sticks that they sharpen with their teeth. The average spear length is 63 centimetres (25 inches), says Jill Pruetz at Iowa State University in Ames, US, who observed the behaviour.

And the method of procuring food with these tools is not simply extractive, as it is when harvesting insects. It is far more aggressive. They use the spears to hunt one of the cutest primates in Africa: bushbabies (Galago senegalensis).

Bushbabies are nocturnal and curl up in hollows in trees during the day. If disturbed during their slumbers – if their nest cavity is broken open, for example – they rapidly scamper away. It appears that the chimps have learnt a grizzly method of slowing them down.

Chimps were observed thrusting their spears into hollow trunks and branches with enough force to injure anything inside the holes, Pruetz’s research team says. The chimps used a “power grip” and made multiple downward stabs – much the same way as a human might wield a dagger.

Ten different chimps in the population were observed to perform this behaviour in 22 bouts. In one case the researchers saw a chimp remove a dead bushbaby and eat it.

The Fongoli chimps inhabit a mosaic savannah – patches of grass and woodland – where there are no red colobus monkeys. The absence of these monkeys, which are the favoured prey of several other chimp populations, may explain the Fongoli chimps’ unique spear-hunting behaviour.

(Hat tip to Boing Boing.)

Calvin & Hobbes Snowman Art

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

You simply have to love Calvin’s Snowman Art.

List of unusual deaths

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

Wikipedia includes a list of unusual deaths. An excerpt:

1920: Baseball player Ray Chapman was killed when he was hit in the head by a pitch. He remains the only Major League Baseball player to date to have been killed in a game.

1923: Frank Hayes, jockey, suffered a heart attack during a horse race. The horse, Sweet Kiss, went on to finish first, making Hayes the only deceased jockey to win a race.

1925: Zishe (Siegmund) Breitbart, a circus strongman and Jewish folklore hero died during a demonstration in which he drove a spike through five one-inch thick oak boards using only his bare hands when his knee was accidentally pierced. The spike was rusted and caused an infection which led to fatal blood poisoning. He was the subject of the Werner Herzog film, Invincible.

New Zealand fishermen catch rare squid

Thursday, February 22nd, 2007

New Zealand fishermen catch rare squid:

A fishing crew has caught a colossal squid that could weigh a half-ton and prove to be the biggest specimen ever landed, a fisheries official said Thursday.

The squid, weighing an estimated 990 lbs and about 39 feet long, took two hours to land in Antarctic waters, New Zealand Fisheries Minister Jim Anderton said.

The fishermen were catching Patagonian toothfish, sold under the name Chilean sea bass, south of New Zealand “and the squid was eating a hooked toothfish when it was hauled from the deep,” Anderton said.

Florida teen stumbles upon mammoth tooth

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

Florida teen stumbles upon mammoth tooth:

A 16-year-old high school student stumbled upon what archaeologists say could be the biggest fossil find in Pinellas County in nearly a century. A shiny black rock caught Sierra Sarti-Sweeney’s eye as she was taking pictures last month in Boca Ciega Millennium Park.

“I looked down and saw a huge bone that could not be a rock. Most of it was exposed, but we dug and found that it was bigger and bigger. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what are these? Are they people bones?’” she said.

The jaw and tooth weigh 65 pounds and are about a yard long. Sarti-Sweeney took the bones home and, after some online research with her older brother, determined the football-sized rock was actually the tooth of a long-extinct mammoth.

Paleontology and archaeology experts have confirmed the find, and recent digging at the site has turned up teeth and bones from a second mammoth, giant sloths, camels, turtles with shells up to 6-feet-long, saber-toothed cats and giant armadillos the size of Volkswagen Beetles.

Scientists believe the remains are between 10,000 and 100,000 years old.

“It’s possible that it’s an old river valley, (and) the animals got caught in the muck or the river washed all these animals down into one place at one time,” he said. “We can get a better handle on it by analyzing the soil,” said Richard Estabrook, director of USF’s Florida Public Archaeology Network.

Start-up demos quantum computer

Tuesday, February 20th, 2007

Start-up demos quantum computer:

The Canadian company on Tuesday gave a public demonstration of Orion, its quantum computer, at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. D-Wave said it is going to try to sell computing services to corporate customers in the first quarter of 2008.

Quantum computers, which researchers have experimented with for years but which haven’t yet existed outside of the laboratory, are radically different than today’s electronic computers. D-Wave’s computer is based around a silicon chip that houses 16 “qubits,” the equivalent of a storage bit in a conventional computer, connected to each other. Each qubit consists of dots of the element niobium surrounded by coils of wire.

When electrical current comes down the wire, magnetic fields are generated, which, in turn, causes the change in the state of the qubit. [...] Ultimately, D-Wave’s computer is an analog computer, according to Alexey Andreev, a venture capitalist at Harris & Harris and an investor in D-Wave. Answers to programs run on the computer come in the form of a physical simulation.

The “probability distribution generator” didn’t actually make the trip to California:

The computer itself — which is cooled down to 4 millikelvin (or nearly minus 273.15 degrees Celsius) with liquid helium — was actually in Canada. Attendees only saw the results on a screen.

(Hat tip to John.)

Killer Workouts

Tuesday, February 20th, 2007

In Killer Workouts, Eugene Allen discusses rhabdomyolysis, the out-of-control release of muscle fiber contents into the bloodstream:

My interest in this topic peaked when a very close friend of mine spent a week in the hospital after I put him through his very first CrossFit workout. Brian was no couch potato who suddenly jumped into exercise, but he did have a long layoff from intense exercise for nearly two years before that fateful afternoon with me. He was a state champion wrestler from Iowa, an Army Ranger, and a pretty serious weightlifter and member of our department’s SWAT team. Although he was not working out hard he had not degenerated to full-blown spudhood. He was running and “staying in shape,” as he said, but he did nothing that could be described as intense. Until he came to my house.

Our workout was nothing crazy hard, but the thing that did him in was the swings. His second set of 50 swings (an eccentric contraction to be sure) was difficult for him and proved to be his undoing. Afterward, he was unable to kneel in my driveway to change from shoes to boots and had to sit. He could barely do that and had to use all the force of his will to get on his Harley and ride home. No pain to speak of during this time, just complete muscle weakness. Brian thought his muscles were tightening up (in fact they were dying) so he put on a heat pad to loosen things up. Instead of relaxing the muscles, the heat released even more fluid and within two minutes the pain started. Excruciating pain. Pain is frequently quantified in the medical community on a scale from 1 to 10. Brian said the pain was way past 10. Once he was at the hospital, our SWAT team doc, who works at the emergency room Brian went to, worked his morphine dose up to 16 mg every two hours, and Brian said that only dulled the pain enough that he didn’t scream.

The primary diagnostic indicator of rhabdomyolysis is elevated serum creatine phosphokinase or CPK. The normal value runs below 200; rhabdo brings the CPK level to at least five times this level. When Brian was admitted to the hospital his CPK level was at 22,000. Within two days it peaked at 98,000. He was pumped full of fluids to help flush the kidneys and he puffed up like the Michelin man. His head looked like a big fat white pumpkin from all the fluid and the medical staff was very concerned about mineral imbalances, which could cause heart problems. Any movement brought suppressed screams of pain through gritted teeth. He was out of the hospital after six days but was off from work for two months. The muscles in his lower back had been destroyed and no longer functioned. He was unable to sit or stand without leaning backwards or he would fall over. He brought an empty cereal bowl to the sink one morning and when he reached slightly forward with his arms to put the bowl in the sink he started to fall and would have gone straight to the ground had he not had the edge of the sink to stop his fall.

A Tool Worthy of Batman’s Utility Belt

Tuesday, February 20th, 2007

A Tool Worthy of Batman’s Utility Belt:

It takes about six minutes for a firefighter with a full load of gear to reach the top of a 30-story building by running up the stairs — and when he gets there, he’s tired. A group of MIT students have designed a rope-climbing device that can carry 250 pounds at a top speed of 10 feet per second.

Seven steps to remarkable customer service

Tuesday, February 20th, 2007

Joel Spolsky offers up his seven steps to remarkable customer service, starting with this first step: fix everything two ways:

Almost every tech support problem has two solutions. The superficial and immediate solution is just to solve the customer’s problem. But when you think a little harder you can usually find a deeper solution: a way to prevent this particular problem from ever happening again.
We treat each tech support call like the NTSB treats airliner crashes. Every time a plane crashes, they send out investigators, figure out what happened, and then figure out a new policy to prevent that particular problem from ever happening again. It’s worked so well for aviation safety that the very, very rare airliner crashes we still get in the US are always very unusual, one-off situations.

This has two implications.

One: it’s crucial that tech support have access to the development team. This means that you can’t outsource tech support: they have to be right there at the same street address as the developers, with a way to get things fixed. Many software companies still think that it’s “economical” to run tech support in Bangalore or the Philippines, or to outsource it to another company altogether. Yes, the cost of a single incident might be $10 instead of $50, but you’re going to have to pay $10 again and again.


Tuesday, February 20th, 2007

Years ago I read about an interesting workout routine. If I recall correctly, it was brought back from Japan by shootfighter Bart Vale.

The idea is simple. Grab an ordinary deck of playing cards, and assign each suit an exercise — e.g. hearts are push-ups, diamonds are squats, clubs are sit-ups, and spades are jumping jacks. Then, draw a card, and do that many of that exercise — e.g. 7? means seven sit-ups. Face cards might mean 10 reps, or 15, or whatever. Go through the deck as quickly as possible.

What I did not realize was that the public would pay $18.95 plus shipping and handling for a custom FitDeck with printed exercises on the cards. Evidently former Navy SEAL Phil Black reported sales of $4.7 million last year with this totally stupid online business idea.

Truth In Advertising

Saturday, February 17th, 2007

Truth In Advertising is a not-safe-for-work spoof of the world of marketing, directed by Tim Hamilton, from the Cannes Film Festival, 2001.

(Hat tip to Todd.)

Storm whips paraglider to heights of 32,000 ft

Saturday, February 17th, 2007

Storm whips paraglider to heights of 32,000 ft:

Wisnerska, from Germany, was preparing for the 10th World Paragliding Championships above the town of Manilla in New South Wales when the storm struck on Wednesday.

With terrifying speed she was whisked from 2,500 ft to an estimated 32,000 ft in about 15 minutes.

42-year-old Chinese paraglider, He Zhongpin, was also caught in the storm and died, apparently from a lack of oxygen and extreme cold.

His body was found nearly 50 miles from where he had taken off. Wisnerska said she encountered hailstones the size of oranges as the temperature dropped to minus 58 degrees fahrenheit.

“I was shaking all the time. The last thing I remember it was dark. I could hear lightning all around me,” she said.

Her ordeal was recorded by global positioning and a radio attached to her equipment.
Wisnerska landed safely 40 miles from her original launch site with ice in her lightweight flying suit and frost bite to her face.